Big Sky – a surprise two day visit

I made sure to leave my nice little spot relatively early since I knew I should have about 6 hours to go to get to Big Sky. It was a fairly easy drive, traffic free until the home stretch. Light snow for through some parts but nothing serious, that is until I started south on the 191, at which point it started coming down hard and fast (well, as hard and fast as snow can be anyway). Some cars slowed down to a crawl and traffic on the small 2 lane highway became a factor. When I finally arrived at Big Sky, a few miles west of the town of Big Sky, it as just arting to get dark, but not so dark that I couldn’t read the big sign that said “Free skier parking. No overnight parking permitted”. This despite me having been told by guest services that overnight RV parking was perfectly fine in the free lot. I call up guest services again and get the same answer, along with a transfer to security to find out which lot I am supposed to use. None, as it turns out. Guest services had the wrong info. Big Sky is not starting off on a good foot. Thankfully security did say I could stay anyway, much to my relief, as I didn’t want to drive back down to the village and search for a spot.

Seems “no overnight” isn’t very strictly enforced here, as seems to be common elsewhere too, as I did have two neighbours that night. I was actually a bit surprised as this is a fancy resort… real fancy. I had heard the name Big Sky before but never heard more than that, and upon seeing it I was quite surprised that this place isn’t more renown. Not only because of the ski area itself (more about that soon) but because of the ultra high end real estate everywhere. This place makes Whistler look budget. Remember the real estate contrast in Whitefish? The contrast here was only between nice and over the top nice. Massive houses frequently sat on several acres of land, many pretty high on the hills, not just in the valley. And it wasn’t just the houses. There are a few “real estate” lifts, private chairlifts with no other reason but to get owners of non-ski-in/ski-out houses to experience the ski-in/ski-out luxury. Plus everything here was spotless and beautiful, like artisan pedestrian bridges over creeks everywhere, and beautiful log cabins for lift huts and on-hill bathrooms. I guess for $98 a day (for a dual mountain pass) you expect some nice details. Big Sky certainly shows it is a proper destination glass resort.

But I wasn’t interested in details, I just wanted good skiing, and Ullr seemed finally to be smiling on my as I woke to a few inches of fresh on top of several inches from the day before. That, as well as largely clear skies. Beautiful. I’m not the only one who thought so though. In fact, quite possibly the most people Big Ski has ever seen thought the same, aided in no small part as this was also the Presidents Day long weekend, which along with Christmas generally takes the crown as the busiest weekend of the year in North American ski resorts. I have thus far tried to avoid weekends for just this reason, but my backed up schedule means I cannot afford that luxury anymore. So today I would have to deal with big lines. Bummer. But wait… for the busiest day of the year (at the end of the day I heard it may have been a record for them) the lines… weren’t that bad. Maybe 5 minutes on their primary chair, and another 5 on the triple that takes you to the tram to get to the peak (a decided impressive Swiss Alps looking peak). From locals I hear repeatedly that these lines are all but unheard of, that even weekends usually mean you wait all of a couple chairs. Then I hear a statistic that explains it all: 5500 acres, 29,000 lift capacity, and (here’s the kicker) a maximum of 5500 skiers per day, the low numbers largely attributed to a lack of any nearby major population center. All of a sudden the $98 ticket (if you go dual mountain, $84 for Big Sky only) seems like pretty good value. Basically it is a larger version of the Kicking Horse formula. I’m starting to like this place alot as I hate HATE lines. But some moderate lines on two (of 20 NOT including surface lifts) chairs I can handle. Well, with one exception: the tram to the top didn’t get below an hour lineup all day.  Considering how much terrain I need to cover in a day I cannot spend that kind of time in line, but then the tram accesses alot of the terrain… and some of it clearly the type I love best. This would be a problem.

Since I had an hour before orientation tours started (despite starting out a half hour late, partly due to a bit of a lineup to buy tickets) I went for a couple runs starting on the smaller part of the hill, Andesite and Flat Iron mountains. The day started off good with a long run of several inches of fresh through a big field, sun shining brightly. A beautiful daylodge sat on top of Andesite, a privately owned but empty due to bankruptcy restaurant I was later told. I also got my first glimpse of the aforementioned mountain top residences lining the ski area boundary here.

At 10:45 I met my host Barbara, and had yet another private tour. Barbara proved very knowledgeable and did a great job filling me in on Big Sky, including things like how the additional ski hill next door was in fact a private club. And we’re not talking about your typical private local hill with a single lift, this place looked to be close to 2000 acres I would guess, and had some pretty nice looking terrain. All those massive houses lining the resorts boundary? All belonged to that same West Yellowstone Club. The 1% sure do live nicely (if wastefully). It became pretty clear to me that if you happen to have a near unlimited budget, Big Sky is certainly a candidate for the best place to spend that budget. Between the beautiful real estate offerings, a private hill when things are crowded and massive Big Sky next door… you would be hard pressed to find a better place to pick up a ski “cabin”.

There is surprisingly little on-hill dining options here, especially with the restaurant on Andesite closed. The two tiny (and I do mean tiny) options do not seem to be well used, which is a shame as they are both very charismatic. Touring around the hill I saw a pretty distinct separation of terrain difficulty, much as I noticed at Whitefish. Two areas are home to almost all the green runs, and the top of the hill (accessed via the tram) is exclusively black. A good mix of blue and black across the rest of the hill means good/expert mixed families can still ski together quite comfortably though. One negative that became apparent during the tour was that Big Sky has alot to learn about crowd control. More accurately, they need to learn to apply what they do know, as they did it perfectly well at the base on their two main access chairs. A few other chairs did however get busy this day, being a near record day, and the lineup was just a big pile, as I’m told is the standard in Europe. Mind you, this is a very rare occurrence, as I was told by several people that other than a few days around Christmas and President’s Day weekend, lines of any sort are unheard of. This particular incarnation of President’s Day Sunday however was a doozy what with the fantastic dump of snow after a so-so season (across the continent, not specifically here). In fact, I would not get to the top of the mountain at all today, with the line never dropping past an hour long.  A major disappointment.

My tour over, I set out to explore the parts of the hill that we didn’t get to, such as the Southern side of Long Mountain, the primary peak. It is impossible to give someone a tour of this whole mountain in a couple hours, it is just so big. and has quite a number of facets to boot. A couple of those facets, coming off the northern ridge of the bowl formed by Long Mountain’s peak, takes a good 15 minute hike, or more if you want to get further along the ridge, as it is a long one. It is at times a nasty hike too, with a narrow bootpack and a long, rocky way down into the Moonlight Basin side. While it afforded an excellent run down, I don’t think I would do it again without crampons, or at least a more appropriate pair of boots (mine are rather low profile and as a result don’t get good lateral grip). On the very much plus side, there is plenty of double black terrain here, primarily coming off the peak, so hiking isn’t necessary. There is plenty terrain/snow to go around without hiking, especially if you don’t come on one of the busiest days of the year.

My day came to an end way too early, with me never having taken the tram even once, and thus missed out on alot of terrain. And I hadn’t gotten into Moonlight Basin at all. which is actually a separate ski area, much like Whistler & Blackcomb here once separate. No doubt the two will have to merge one day [edit: in 2013 they did]. It only makes sense, especially given they share the same mountain (both built on the slopes of Lone Mountain). Plus it was snowing pretty good again, promising yet more fresh powder tomorrow. After a session of typical (for me) agonizing, I decided this place deserved a second day. If I had properly realized that Big Sky/Moonlight was actually the biggest ski area in the US ahead of time, I would likely have planned this to begin with. I crossed my fingers for good conditions the next day, and especially for less people to keep the tram line in check.

Next morning did indeed welcome more fresh snow, and thankfully much less people. After my first run I ran into my parking lot neighbour and nearby Bozeman resident Phillip, who explained this was the result of far flung weekenders having to drive home to be back at work Tuesday. Big Sky being pretty far from any population centers, it wasn’t an evening drive home for most. I was actually very fortunate to run into Phillip as he agreed to show me around the rest of the day. Being a better skier than I and a seasoned local, he made for an excellent tour guide, partly for his knowledge of the parts of the mountain my Mountain Host guide couldn’t show me (hosts seem to be universally restricted from advanced terrain… hire a private guide at $625 a day if you want to get to the good stuff), and partly because skiing with someone better than yourself is a great way to push yourself a little harder, and the confidence of knowing I wouldn’t unexpectedly go over a cliff definitely allows me to ski a bit more aggressively.

We started off on the tram, which was virtually line-free today, heading south through one of the alpine bowls, and into some excellent tree skiing in the Dakota lift area. Most of the mountain has fairly tight trees, similar to Whistler, but a few man-gladed areas, plus a selection of naturally skiable trees like Dakota made for some excellent runs, especially with plenty of fresh lines left through them, a testament to the good acres per skier ratio. After a quick lunch it was time to head over to the Moonlight Basin side, starting off with the highlight of my visit here, the North Summit Snowfields and Deep Water Bowl, coming right off the peak. This is one of two controlled access areas, where you need to sign up for your spot as they only let a limited number of people in per hour (VERY limited). The other is Big Couloir off the summit and right back to the tram, but that run requires avalanche equipment, and is even more limited, to 2 people every 15 minutes.

Skiing down the snowfields was fantastic. Though the visibility was less than great, and the western aspect was a bit windpacked, staying north was heavenly, with deep, very lightly tracked powder. It offers a pretty long vertical ride too, and follows that up with absolutely glorious untouched powder through some more fantastically spaced tree skiing. Certainly the highlight run of my trip so far (Kicking Horse would have been in the running except for my recently done-in tailbone). My guide took me for an efficient route through the rest of Moonlight, though we skipped the other main bowl as it was in pretty bad need of more snow, despite all the fresh powder and being north facing. Nevertheless, but the end of the day I felt I had finally got a handle on the resort, in part thanks to my guide Phillip. After my first run that morning, what with the iffy visibility and wind packed snow, I had questioned my decision to stay another day, but I ended up very glad I did so.

Now my impression of Big Sky/Moonlight Basin is of course coloured by the good conditions they offered up to me, but with an average 400+ inches of snow (about the same as Whistler), two thirds the terrain of WhistlerBlackcomb with a fantastic selection of expert terrain and alpine bowls and chutes, nearly half the lift capacity, similar pricing, but less than 1/3 the peak daily visitors, and lighter interior snow, Whistler definitely has a fight on its hands to maintain superiority. Whistler can only fire back with easier access, a much bigger village (important for many, not at all to me personally, at least as a visitor), and perhaps most importantly more high speed lifts. This fight is close enough that I will have to reserve decision until I can get a fresh look at my home mountain at the end of my trip. Although I will say on each resort’s busiest day (including probably any weekend), Big Sky winds hands down for much smaller lift lines. On a typical slow weekday though, the fight is a close one to me.

The snow was coming down again, and tomorrow would be yet another excellent day. I wished I had time to stay another day, but I had already taken more than my budgeted time, and besides my next stop, 186 miles south, is one I am looking forward to very much, given how much I’ve heard of the place from Whistlerites over the years: Jackson Hole.

In the big lot at the main base on the morning of Day 1. Click to view 360° panorama.

At the top of Andesite Mountain, looking west at the fancy Pinnacle restaurant and Big Sky's impressive main peak.

At the top of Andesite Mountain, looking west at the fancy Pinnacle restaurant and Big Sky’s impressive main peak.

A short walk from the above photo is the proper peak, with a complete view of Big Sky's main mountain. Click to view 360° panorama.

Even their utility sheds are fancy here. Note the insane zip line in the background crossing the valley.

Even their utility sheds are fancy here.
Note the insane zip line in the background crossing the valley.

Typical Big Sky slopeside house

The slopeside houses here, and there are alot of them, put to shame anything I’ve seen before. Most are on estates measuring a few acres to boot. Big Sky is where I first learned the expression “a 10-10-2-2”, meaning a $10 million, 10,000 square foot house that is used by 2 people 2 times a year. Pretty telling. Though for Whistler you don’t get as much for your money so it is 10-5-2-2.

Half way down the south slopes, having come off the big peak and through Dakota Bowl. Click to view panorama.

Near the bottom of the big bowl on the insane eastern face of Long Mountain's peak. The bottom tram station is just visible behind a roll. Click to view 360° panorama.

Looking into Stillwater Bowl near the top of Moonlight Basin. I'm about to make a rather harrowing hike along the top of this bowl to access the other side of the ridge. In better years this bowl is skiable.

Looking into Stillwater Bowl near the top of Moonlight Basin. I’m about to make a rather harrowing hike along the top of this bowl to access the other side of the ridge. In better years this bowl is skiable.

Right next to Big Ski is the Yellowstone Club, a decidedly high end private ski resort.

Right next to Big Ski is the Yellowstone Club, a decidedly high end private ski resort.